Mar 262014

The problem

Have you ever had a non-Christian friend (or “non-friend”) come up to you and say something along the the biblelines of “Your Bible says XXX which clearly can’t be true and so it can’t be trusted”? Or maybe you have read something in the Bible and have struggled to reconcile it with your experience of life and understanding of how things work.

Some common examples of this include:

  1. Science has disproved the Bible so we can’t rely on what it says about God or anything else
  2. The Bible makes statements about every-day life which are demonstrably untrue
  3. The Bible contradicts itself so we can’t trust it
  4. The Bible says things which may well have been true when it was written but just doesn’t relate to our society or culture today

There are many possible responses to these sorts of questions – such as:

  • If the Bible says something it must be true and so, even if we don’t understand it, our experience and our view of other things must be flawed – which might be ok for us but doesn’t really help in debate and discussion with those people who don’t “believe the Bible” to start with
  • The Bible is there to provide some general principles but we shouldn’t take it literally – which may help to get round some of the issues but can leave us, and others, unsure of what we actually can reliably depend on from the Bible
  • There are some passages which we can’t depend on but everything else is fine – which results in a cut-down version of the Bible which is probably different for each of us and undermines the overall authority of the word which God has given us

I was prompted to think about this last week when in conversation with a friend of mine who was looking into the question of how we understand and interpret the Bible. I was reminded of the importance of recognising the “genre” or “type of literature” of different passages and that it is only when we do this that we get a fuller appreciation of what the Bible is saying and how it should be understood. In effect, the importance of treating the Bible on its own terms as opposed to how we might want to read it.

We are used to dealing with these issues in everyday life – we know what to expect when we are reading novels, science reference books, biographies, emails, song lyrics, letters, newspaper articles, history books and blogs but we often fail to recognise that there are many different types of literature in the sixty-six books which make up our Bible (and often different types within particular books).

So, taking the examples above, how would this understanding of genre help respond to the critiques and comments which we, or others, have as we look at what the Bible says?

Science and the Bible

There are a range of these types of issues which come up – ranging from the fairly trivial to those which have caused much heated debate and disagreement.

At the fairly trivial end of the spectrum is the objections people make to the statement of Jesus when he talks about the sun rising (Matthew 5:45) resulting in comments such as

Science has shown that the earth goes round the sun and therefore the Bible can’t be trusted

This ignores the fact that the point of what Jesus is talking about isn’t planetary motion but more the way in which God treats people impartially. It also ignores the fact that, even today in general conversation, we are highly likely to talk about the time when the sun will rise. It is a standard expression, not intended to be a scientific statement.

Much more challenging, and more hotly debated, are discussions about how everything started and the bible and scienceidea that science has explained how the universe came into being and life (in all its forms) has developed, that this contradicts the biblical account of creation (particularly in Genesis 1-2) and so the Bible can’t be trusted.

People take differing positions on this – from believing that the Bible should be treated as a science text book and that all the conflicting discoveries are flawed in some way, through seeing the Bible’s creation account as a statement about the identity and purposes of God to saying that it shouldn’t be taken literally anyway. An example of some of the issues which need to be considered can be seen in a recent post (“Was Adam an historical figure?“) looking at questions around Adam and Eve. I’m not suggesting that I agree with everything in that article but rather that the questions raised are some of the things which need to be considered as opposed to just treating everything in the Bible as a statement of historical fact.

Statements which just don’t seem true

An example of this would be Psalm 12:7

   “You, Lord, will keep the needy safe and will protect us forever from the wicked,”

And we can look at many situations in the world, and sometimes in our own experience, where the needy aren’t kept safe nor protected from those who would seek to harm them – and so it is easy to claim that this promise isn’t true.

But if we look closer we see that this Psalm is a  prayer to God for help, not a statement from God as to how he will behave in each and every situation.

Contradictions in the Bible

Again, there are many instances which people point to.

There is the interesting example of Proverbs 26:4-5 where two seemingly contradictory statements contradictionsappear side-by-side:

   “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” (Proverbs 26:4)

“Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” (Proverbs 26:5)

And it’s easy to look at these and see that they are taking extremely opposite positions – but this ignores the fact that the book of Proverbs is asking us to think about how we live and, in this case, recognising that it is appropriate to behave in different ways in different situations.

Much more challenging are questions which are asked about the four Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus and the seeming contradictions which appear there.

One example of this would be the witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus with:

  • Matthew having “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” (Matthew 28:1)
  • Mark having “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome” (Mark 16:1)
  • Luke has “the women” (Luke 24:1) who are later identified as “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the others with them” (Luke 24:10)
  • John just has Mary Magdalene (John 20:1)

All accounts have Mary Magdalene present but there are differences regarding who else was there.

But this shouldn’t cause us a problem if we think about these accounts being a form of biography with information gleaned from different witnesses (which even today is recognised as resulting in mixed messages) and material carefully selected and presented to tell a particular story. Rather it should encourage us to look more deeply at each account and try and understand what the different writers are trying to communicate.

Relevance, or otherwise, of the Bible

We can look at statements from the Old Testament about how God’s people were supposed to live including references to mixing seeds in fields, not making clothing from two types of material or “clipping the edges of your beard” (Leviticus 19:19-27) or statements in the New Testament regarding the role of slaves (Ephesians 6:5-8) and claim that these are of no relevance today and hence the entire Bible is irrelevant.

These are easy statements to make. It is much harder to look carefully at these passages and understand the context in which they were written, the reasons for what was written and the underlying principles which they teach which may apply to us today.

The challenge for Christians

I suggest that it is unreasonable of us to expect our non-Christians friends, the media or society in general to understand the different genres which we find in the Bible.

But, if we believe that the Bible is God’s word revealed to us, then surely it is reasonable to expect that we would be prepared to do the hard work to understand what it is saying on its own terms and, from that base, work through the questions which are raised either from our own study or by questions from others.